If you love God, and you love comics, the math adds up to you also loving God and Comics, a bi-monthly podcast of “super-soldier serum” dished out by three theologians who want nothing more than to nerd out with you for a bit.
I don’t want to get too theoretical with you and try to force you to admit that the Bayeux Tapestry is a great example of the art of comics (It is), or quote soul-searching words from comic writer Scott McCloud to you (“…when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another . But when you enter the world of the cartoon , you see yourself.”), or argue that the way in which a comic strips down storytelling to its barest elements allows it to communicate in a unique way. Dappled Things readers are a pretty sophisticated bunch and I’m sure you’re all reading comics already, so all I want to do is introduce you all to a pretty cool podcast and talk comics with my friend Jonathan Mitchican, one of the aforementioned three priests. Full disclosure – Jonathan and I have been friends since meeting at Yale Divinity School in 2003, and he recently became Catholic because he wanted to copy me or some serious reason like that.
First, tell us about your podcast and where you got the idea to put it together
I was an Episcopal priest for eleven years. It was during that time that I met Fr. Matt Stromberg and Fr. Kyle Tomlin. All three of us have loved comics since we were kids. The main reason I started the podcast was because I wanted to have regular conversations about this stuff. I kept seeing theological depth in comics and I wanted to have a place to have that discussion. Since I became Catholic, we have continued to do that. Now that the show is ecumenical, we have a great time bringing in different perspectives and even having respectful debates. It’s a lot of fun.
What is it about comics that appeals to you?
When I was a kid, it was the superhero genre. I loved seeing these figures who were bigger than life. The struggle between good and evil was very palpable to me in those stories. Interestingly enough, I could see the same thing in the priesthood and the way that faithful priests served Mass. There is a kind of heroism in liturgy that I don’t think has been fully explored by theologians.
As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve come to appreciate the whole breadth of what comics can communicate. The superhero genre is still a big deal but it is not the only one. There are comics that tell all kinds of stories: history, mystery, romance, westerns, horror, science fiction, you name it. No matter what kind of stories you enjoy, chances are there is a comic that is right for you. I have learned to appreciate the medium of comics more and more. Comics create unique visual worlds in which stories get to play out. I love being able to see how that works. When I read novels, I often have trouble picturing what is going on if there are too many descriptive details. In comics, the whole picture is shown to me. I am able to take in a comprehensive vision, which unexpectedly means that I can appreciate the language more. I feel more deeply connected to the writer’s words because I can see those words coming to life. There’s something profoundly biblical about that. The word that becomes the world, and the world that finds its true beauty in glorifying the word.
Did you have a favorite comic growing up, did you ever stop reading, and what do you read now?
I had a lot of favorites growing up. My comics that I could not miss were Batman, X-Men, and Daredevil. I was also a pretty big Iron Man fan. But my favorite two heroes were Green Lantern and Wonder Woman. They’re still my favorites. I have action figures of them that sit on my desk.
Yes, I stopped reading for a long time, from about mid high school until I was about thirty. I never lost my interest in the characters though. I would follow them through various iterations in film and cartoons. When I finally did come back, in part through my friendship with Fr. Kyle, I went back and read a whole lot of what I missed in the years in between.
These days I read a lot of trade paperbacks which are the graphic novel versions of ongoing comic book series. I read a lot of Marvel too because of their Marvel Unlimited service which allows you to read most of their back catalogue on your tablet. I am a big fan of writers like Brian Michael Bendis, Bryan Glass, and Gail Simone, as well as certain artists like Amanda Conner. My favorite comic in recent years is the Mice Templar series that Glass did. It is the most epic adventure story I have ever read, rivaling even the great stories epic adventures of modern literature like Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. It involves a secret order of knights fighting for freedom against an oppressive regime of rats, a hero named Karic who may or may not be prophesied, and a tremendously rich tapestry of legends and rituals that Glass draws from Norse mythology and other sources. It is a bit violent in places, but it is an incredibly well written series.
How is that the visual language of comics (it’s more than pictures with words, it’s, uh, hypostatic) communicates in a way that the written word alone cannot?
Reading comics is in some ways more akin to watching a movie than to reading a novel, because you see everything that is happening. But it goes beyond that. Comics allow for a different kind of storytelling that stimulates different parts of the brain than you get with either regular literature or films. Thinking about a series like Mice Templar again, for instance, the medium of comics allows for that story to be told in a way that is as striking visually as it is through language. Michael Oeming, who was the artist that co-created the series with Glass, set up a visual template that makes the mice look serious, sympathetic, and real within their own space. I do not think you could re-produce that on a screen and have it be the same, even though I would love to see a screen adaptation. It would be easy to over-sentimentalize in a cartoon and over-the-top in CGI, while on the pages of a comic book it can be realistic and restrained, subtle even, while still delivering quite a punch. Another book that expresses what I mean, more in the superhero genre, would be the current run of Silver Surfer which is drawn by Mike Allred. It has this incredible pallet of colors that makes the whole universe of the surfer pop. It is quirky and even comical at times, but it still fits within its own dramatic milieu. You could certainly make a movie out of it, but it would not be able to communicate that same way of seeing the universe. It would not have the same naked exposure of the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Comics are interesting to me because they’re “subtractive,” meaning the artist polishes, combines, edits until the storyboard is economical but still tells the story. Have you noticed that comics are capable of saying more about God and the human experience in a shorter space than other forms of communication? Do you find that there is any work being done in the space between the frames (and should we call it apophatic?)
I am not sure I know totally how to answer this [ed. Note, this is because I’m a horrible interviewer]–it is hard to speak about what happens in the negative space by definition–but I do think that scale of story-telling in comics gives it a different weight. Most comics have about twenty-two to twenty-four pages of story. You have to express a lot in that space. And even in much longer graphic novels, there is only so much room per page and per panel. There just is not room for a lot of dense overlay of exposition. Usually, in a serialized comic, it’s just one short page of “last time this happened” and then you’re thrown into the deep end of the pool. Yet even in such small space, with a lot of direct and pointed dialogue and a need for simplicity, really big, complicated ideas get explored. There is a tendency to get to the nub of things quickly. I think that makes it fertile ground for exploring the relationship between God and creation, even when it is done unintentionally. God is so complex and so simple all at the same time.
I guess what I’m getting at is, if the medium is the message, why does the world need the unique form of expression that is comics?
I do not know if the world needs comics but I think the world is richer and more beautiful for having them. And for people like me, who have trouble with the mental pictures, it gives us something tangible and beautiful to focus on as we take in stories. In that way, comics almost could be said to analogous to iconography, creating windows into the deeper truths of this magical world that we live in.
Are comics capable and willing to do heavy lifting theologically, or as you discuss them on your podcast are you approaching it more from the pop culture perspective?
We have always said that this show is first and foremost about comics and the stories they tell. We never try to impose theology on top or to exploit comics just as a way of getting to some doctrinal point. Yet we’ve found in almost three years of doing this now that theology almost always rises naturally to the surface. There have only been one or two shows where some sort of theology did not come up. I certainly think you could write a comic that would be more explicitly catechetical. Such things exist. There is, for instance, a comic version of St. Augustine’s City of God. But in general, I think the better thing for us to do as Christians is to look at what is out there with eyes of faith and see how the divine mystery unfolds there. Every great story, after all, is in some way an echo of the greatest story ever told.
Who is the most godless comic book character? Who is the holiest?
Perhaps the most godless would be someone like Jesse Custer from the Vertigo book “Preacher.” He is an explicitly anti-Christian figure and “Preacher” is written intentionally to create an a narrative to fill what the writer felt is broken in religion, much in the same way that Pullman wrote “His Dark Materials” as a kind of anti-Narnia.
Holiest is a harder question. Although there is a wonderful set of two comics from the early eighties that I have copies of, put out by Marvel, that depict the lives of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa. It is hard to get much holier than that!
One candidate I would have to include though for holiness from the superhero genre would have to be Saint Walker who is part of the mythos of the Green Lantern stories. Saint Walker is an alien from a distant planet called Astonia and in many ways he’s a tragic figure. He loses his whole family during a quest for enlightenment. But he holds onto hope and never lets go of it. Eventually, he becomes the first Blue Lantern, having a ring that gains its power from his hope. He’s able with his ring not only to fight his own battles but to give a boost of extra power to any Green Lantern in his vicinity, adding his hope to their will power in order to create a greater force for good. It’s not a Christian story by any stretch, but Saint Walker represents a kind of virtue that is sometimes forgotten in the darker heroes that are often depicted in our era.
Are there any particular writers who seem to be delving more deeply into the human experience and asking harder questions?
So many! I have already named a bunch of them like Bendis, Glass, and Simone. I would add to that list Geoff Johns, Brian K. Vaughan, and Kelly Sue DeConnick. Most of these folks aren’t Catholic or Christian of any kind, but they are wrestling pretty hard with what it means to be human, how we are to treat one another, and what life and death are ultimately all about. Also, Gene Luen Yang should be on any Catholic’s list. He is Catholic and he writes in a dizzying number of genres. As a Chinese American, he has a unique voice and perspective in modern comics.